News in the age of Twitter: lessons from Bin Laden and beyond

Everything we knew about breaking news has changed.

By this point, it's generally believed that CBS News Capitol Hill Producer Jill Jackson broke the stoy of Osama bin Laden's death with one tweet at 10:32pm EST. Whether Jill scooped her own network is a question for another time, but the point is this: One tweet, retweeted by me and thousands of others, came more than an hour before the President of the United States took the podium and confirmed what we'd all read.

Here's the key point to take away --The President didn't tell us the news-- he simply confirmed what the world had already learned online, that Osama bin Laden was dead. While it was still of primary importance to hear it from the leader of the free world, the bigger question is this: At that point, did it matter from who we heard it?

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Perhaps most interesting is that we all still watched the President speak --So the question becomes:

1) When did this news become, in fact, verified?

and more importantly,

2) When did we accept it as fact?

When the news first broke that there'd be an unplanned speech by the President, one network went on and confirmed more than once is that it was going to be a speech about Libya. When it became clear it wasn't, they immediately retracted.

It would seem that this time, predominantly accurate information spread through people via social media, vs rumors and wild gossip. There didn't seem to be a time where 100% inaccurate information was taken as fact, and it looked more and more like people were starting to become actual citizen journalists, broadcasting information reported and confirmed, as opposed to the wild rumor-mongering we've seen in the past through social media networks.

What went right: When Jackson's tweet went live, it was the social media equivalent of CBS News confirming the story. As such, those who tweeted it out had the most credibility. They tweeted information that was "sourced."

Rule: Source your postings when time is of the essence -- Sourced postings (even if from a news outlet that later turns out to be wrong) still give you better credibility.

When information came out that it was "probably" that Bin Laden was killed, people wanted to send it out, "as is."

The fact is, people tend to editorialize information to make it suit their needs --in this case and similar cases, to share good news. This time, it was good news-- no editorializing needed.

Rule: Don't editorialize facts. News is news. If you want to be taken seriously, post what you know. Editorializing it makes it opinion, and guarantees you won't be taken seriously ever again if you're wrong.

Rule: Remember that the media is on Twitter, and quite possibly getting their information from it.

If you're posting inaccurate information, or even if you're posting information you shouldn't be posting (think about the congressman who tweeted his location while in Iraq) it could cost you your job, your reputation, and even possibly your life.


Rule: The media is circular.

What starts out as a tweet, gets reported, then tweeted as a news report. There's such a crush to be "first" with information, reporters are turning to unverified sources more and more. Social Media helps perpetuate that, and as we saw with Obama, "facts" become secondary to "speed" which can get you in trouble.

Finally, know your audience. It's one thing to retweet information received by news organizations to your personal feed --but it's quite another to post to a corporate brand. People follow you for very specific reasons-- If they're not expecting to hear something from you, posting it could have negative consequences. You need to be aware of your audience at all times.

Peter Shankman Peter Shankman (@petershankman) is an author, entrepreneur, and public speaker who specializes in social media, public relations, marketing, advertising, and customer service. He is founder of PR firm The Geek Factory, and Help A Reporter Out (HARO), a free service for connecting the journalists with informed sources and experts.

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